Chapter 4 – A clearerNET

That my first three cell phones were all on the Bell network was no accident; historically the mobile landscape in Canada has been dominated by two players — Bell, a telephone company, and Rogers, a cable TV company that got into the wireless racket early on. Thanks to this duopoly mobile phone service for Canadians has been very expensive for a very long time.

But by the summer of 1999 hope had arrived in the form of some new carriers. One of them was a company called clearNET. Like Bell their service ran on a digital PCS network; very much unlike Bell their pricing was easy to understand, and their plans generally cheaper. The trade-off was that clearNET’s service was confined to urban areas; to get a signal out in the country you had to “roam” on Bell or Rogers, at extra cost. For me a mobile phone was still a luxury, so this wasn’t an issue. And I spent most of my time in downtown Toronto, anyway… I was a hipster before hipsters were cool.

And so this mobile hipster became one of the early adopters of clearNET. I wasn’t alone, by any means; many of my friends and colleagues signed up with clearNET as well — thanks in no small part to their effective marketing. clearNET’s motto, “the future is friendly”, was a direct jab at the obfuscation practised by Bell and Rogers. Too many people would unwittingly walk into a Bell or Rogers Wireless store looking for a cheap cell phone and somehow walk out with a multi-year contract and a handset they didn’t want. Not so with clearNET.

Another clever clearNET idea was selling generic accessories with their own branding. An acquaintance of mine (who went on to star in a hit Broadway show) had a speaker phone for his car powered by the cigarette lighter jack. Though it was made of cheap plastic and sounded fairly tinny it had a very obvious clearNET logo on it, and I therefore wanted one.

My clearNET phone was a Nokia 6188, very similar to the 6185 I had used on Bell immediately prior. The big difference was the colour of the housing — whereas the 6185 was a morose grey my 6188 came in a funky sharkskin green. The only problem with this was that the surface was prone to scratches when dropped or even put into a pocket with keys. Fortunately for me clearNET had an extremely liberal return policy that allowed a customer to exchange any handset for a new one within 15 days of purchase, no questions asked. I abused this policy big-time, burning through at least three ever-so-slightly-scratched 6188s before finally succumbing and buying a protective pouch — a clearNET-branded one, of course.

In the year 2000 clearNET was bought up by Telus, a company from Western Canada. But I had already moved on to another upstart carrier, one that ran on an entirely different digital network from Europe. It proved to be a good choice; I stuck with them for the next ten years…